Max Ophüls’ third feature in America, Caught, from 1949, is an evocative amalgam of a domesticated melodramatic tragedy and a dynamic film noir sensibility. The picture stars Barbara Bel Geddes as Leonora Eames, a studious adherent to charm school principles who dreams of becoming a glamorous model, or at least marrying a young, handsome millionaire. She gets the latter when she meets Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), a wealthy “international something” who gives her the superficial materials she desires but little else. Their marriage is an arduous sham. He works late hours on unclear projects while she is left to dwell uselessly in their extravagant mansion. He’s cruel to her and careless. A way out of the stifling relationship comes in the form of a job as a doctor’s receptionist. Leonora leaves Ohlrig and moves into Manhattan, where she eventually shows a knack for her newfound profession. There she also falls for pediatrician Larry Quinada (James Mason, in his first Hollywood role). As the film’s title suggests, Leonora finds herself emotionally and ethically caught: caught between who she is and what she tried to be, and what she’s become and what she now hopes for. A confrontation is inevitable, but what isn’t expected is the shocking conclusion of the film. A forbidding decision provocatively questions the morals of these characters and our subsequent judgment of their actions, and the final minutes of the film contains the makings of one of Hollywood’s most bizarre “happy endings.”
The Dorothy Dale School of Charm gives Leonora a superficial “social education,” where she learns diction and posture and how to handle herself when out and about with society’s elites. It’s on her way to a swanky yacht party that she meets Ohlrig. He’s heard before he’s seen, as he’s below the pier and out of her and our view. Such an introduction foreshadows their marriage, itself marred by each of them being out of sight and out of mind. She is suspicious about his invitation to ride with him — men, after all, have only one idea — and he is vague about who he is and where he’s going. After this first meeting, they continue seeing each other, despite apparent coldness and tension. He thinks she’s only after his money, but they marry anyway. (Admittedly, in the beginning, though she doesn’t always have money for lunch, she does dream of mink and chinchilla.)
With the settings of their initial meeting being a foggy pier and outside a dimly lit warehouse, our noir sixth sense tells us things are not going to go well for this romance. Once married, Leonora clearly doesn’t fit in her new life, and we never feel satisfied either. Her anxiety feeds our own trepidation about what she’s gotten herself into. Ohlrig’s large house feels paradoxically more claustrophobic than her old, cramped apartment. It has an empty fullness, reminiscent of Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu. She complains she never sees her husband and he counters with insinuations: “You got what you wanted,” he tells her, obviously still under the impression she is after his wealth, “You’re wearing it.” She’s a wreck, and he’s insecure, careless, and irrationally explosive. Her charm school pretense couldn’t have prepared her for this.
When she finally gets the nerve to leave and meets Larry, it’s a different world. He and his partner are in over their heads with their busy practice. It’s in a rather poor section of the city; it’s hectic and not at all glamorous. But there’s life there, and indeed, life there soon shall be. Larry initially criticizes Leonora for being too fancy, but their mutual attraction grows more and more pronounced, just as she discovers she’s pregnant … with Ohlrig’s child. She now faces compassion or coldness, secrets or the truth, divorce or a child.
Romantic passions run high throughout Caught, yet all three leads reign in any overtly theatrical excess, maintaining a balanced degree of emotional expressiveness even in times of scandalous behavior. There is also a significant level of socioeconomic concern, which drives a considerable portion of the drama. The genuine or perceived importance of money is related throughout, and the placement of an individual comfortably into an appropriate class is but one conveyed anxiety, at least for Leonora, with Ohlrig and Larry representing opposite poles of economic standing.
Ophüls’ renowned camera work is on full display (it was while working on this film that Mason penned an amusing poem regarding, “A shot that does not call for tracks” being “agony for poor old Max”). Even in Leonora’s constrictive apartment early on, or later in Larry’s office, the camera glides in all directions, in continually impressive and original patterns. One particularly striking shot has the two doctors talking to each other from across the office. The camera establishes a central focal point and as if a pendulum, it oscillates from side to side, resting on either man in matching compositions. What also stands out visually is the meticulousness of formal design in terms of corresponding cuts, noirish illumination, deep focus compositions, and the movement of characters in and out of frame, all of this lending itself to a notable cinematic choreography beyond just moving the camera.
Caught’s screenplay is by Arthur Laurents, who had the year before written Hitchcock’s Rope and would go on to pen David Lean’s Summertime (1955) and Otto Preminger’s underrated Bonjour Tristesse (1958). As for Ophüls, as good as Caught is, his greatest work still lay ahead: La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) and Lola Montès (1955).